The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Last week in “From the Archives” we looked at an unaired Chris Elliott pilot to celebrate the release of Get a Life on DVD and this week we follow suit by celebrating the newly released and really great box set, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff, by looking at some of Steve’s early TV work found in the Paley library. This week we watch as Steve Martin guest hosts The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
On August 22, 1977, the classic rainbow colored curtain opened up and instead of television’s pal, Johnny Carson, out stepped a man in a metallic silver shirt, a brown coat draped around his shoulders, a tan scarf with matching fedora, and large brown sunglasses. It is, of course, Steve Martin, our replacement host. During this time, every Monday on The Tonight Show had a guest host, and when Johnny went on vacation, they might end up being there the entire week. This practice seems to have gone completely out of favor with any other modern talk show host, with one of the few exceptions being the short period when David Letterman was recovering from heart surgery.
As Steve steps out, he gets a huge reaction from the crowd and to respond he adopts a slight “Wild and Crazy Guy” accent. “As you become more and more successful, it’s important to maintain your own identity and not become some other guy,” he begins. “You have to relate to the common man all the time. If you lose contact with the common man, you may as well be like Dimitri in La Condition Humaine or like Petrovich in The Possessed.” This joke goes over alright with Johnny’s sidekick Ed McMahon, but the crowd doesn’t seem to get on board quiet yet. Steve then explains how a guy like him got to host the show, and then flashes some Polaroids from his jacket and scans through them, lingering briefly on a group shot of Ed, Doc, and Johnny together. Steve then takes this opportunity to show the bandleader, Doc Severinsen, the proper way to hold a trumpet, with a strange two handed grip that makes it very difficult to play. This builds for a bit until Doc steals Steve’s catchphrase from the time and gives an exaggerated “Well, excuuuuuuse me!” Again, the audience is still warming up to this strange non-Carson entity, and Steve seems somewhat aware of the corniness of this bit and as he returns to the center of the stage he announces: “Yes, another funny comedy routine from me and Doc.” He tells a few more jokes, and then he does his juggling routine (previously seen here), which completely seems to dazzle the crowd. Having finally won them over, he throws to commercial.
When we come back, Steve, now behind the desk alongside Ed, is now significantly more low-key. The big showy character of Steve Martin: Stand-Up Comedian has peeled away to reveal the regular guy who kind of slumps over in his chair as he sits behind Johnny’s desk and, quiet frankly, seems a little nervous to be there. In my research I couldn’t find any evidence to indicate one way or the other, but between his evident uncomfortableness behind the desk and his reference in the monologue to “how did this guy get to host” leads me to believe that this is Steve’s first time hosting the show. Earlier in the year Steve had already hosted Saturday Night Live, but in this venue there are no characters to hide behind: it’s all him. When he’s behind the desk, Steve seems shy, particularly in contrast to the Steve Martin in sunglasses who started the show a few minutes ago. Steve and Ed banter a little bit Steve’s new album and how Steve is going to start doing Shakespeare in the Park in San Francisco until the conversation breaks down and just turns into Steve performing some more of his material, this time from behind the desk. It works, and the crowd enjoys it, but it feels a little bit like a parachute being opened.
The show goes to commercial and when it comes back, Steve introduces his first guest, Chevy Chase. Martin thanks him for coming out even though he knows he has to go, at which point Chevy stands up and walks off to applause. Steve vamps for a moment and is then informed that there’s a special guest in the studio! He then introduces Chevy Chase again. As I watched I sort of hoped that Steve and Chevy would commit and that that short cameo would be all we would see of Chase, but the interview continues, and we do get to see Steve relax a little in conversation with his friend. After the two talk for a bit, Chevy decides to shows a clip from his new movie. Not to the viewers, mind you. We just watch as Chevy and Steve view the clip themselves from a monitor. Steve then announces that Chevy’s wife is in the audience that evening and the cameraman takes a shot of her in the crowd, played by John Belushi in a wig, dress and large mustache. This is all we see of John, so in a way, I get my wish for the half-second cameo.
Chevy then asks to do some of his more esoteric impressions such as a roadie, and a talk show host who’s focused on reading the next question instead of listening to the guest’s answer. Before long they arrive on the topic of Chevy’s piano prowess and goads him into playing a song. Chevy is very resistant and clearly doesn’t want to do it, and it seems like genuine retisence, but eventually gives into peer pressure and plays an improvised blues riff with Doc’s band.
When we come back from commercial, Steve brings out Pat Boone who also performs “The Honeymoon is Over”’ and “Ain’t Going Down in the Ground.” I’m going to be completely honest with you here. I try not to do this, but I fast-forwarded through most of this interview. Pat attempted to make a few jokes with Steve, but for the most part it was a straight interview between the two performers and I kind of felt that I already knew everything I needed to know about Pat Boone, which is basically nothing. I’ll have you know that I checked in from time to time to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and I can confirm that that was the case.
After another commercial break, Steve introduces future Tonight Show host Jay Leno who performs some stand up about news reporters, coffee commercials, and the annoyances of having parents who lived through the Depression. I’ve heard many comedians talk about how excellent a comedian Jay was before he sold his soul to The Tonight Show, and I can attest to that. As a stand-up Jay does seem very different from the usual fare of the time. After his set when Jay sits down with Steve and tells some stories about working on the road, he’s genuinely funny and able to riff with Steve in a conversation. Jay tells a story about a particularly terrible early comedy experience in which he opened up for drummer Buddy Rich for a group of audience members who really did not want to hear his jokes. Immediately after being introduced, someone in the crowd yells “We hate him!” which Jay finds difficult to understand since he’s new to comedy, but “maybe they saw me coming in.” The gig would later have a temporary intermission when a man from the audience hopped up on stage and punched Jay in the face, knocking him out cold. The club owner manages to wake him up… before instructing him to get back out there.
The final guest (If you’re wondering how they managed to have two musical performances, two guests and a stand-up act, keep in mind that this is back when The Tonight Show was on for an hour and a half) is a classic late night talk-show guest. His name is Stan Kann and he collects rare or uncommon gadgets. Unfortunately for Mr. Kann, every single one of these gadgets that he brought to the show seems unimpressive and backfires on him as he demonstrates them for Steve. I don’t feel like this was part of his schtick, but if it was, he plays it wonderfully. We see Stan Kaan try to show us the newest interesting products (that either break quickly or don’t work well): a sing-along radio that comes with a microphone, a jump rope with a built in counter that tells you how many times you’ve jumped. An early electric whisk, with attachments that keep shooting out, and a cold can cooler, which looks more like a bazooka and shoots cans in a similar fashion.
By the end of the night, Steve Martin has loosened up and seems to be getting into the swing of hosting The Tonight Show. In 1976, that rocky start at the beginning was probably the closest any of his fans had to seeing him as a regular human being. Gone were the big voices, the sweeping arm movements, and the carousel of jokes. Instead, viewers of The Tonight Show got to see Steve as a funny guy, outside of his comfort zone, trying to make sense of a unfamiliar situation. However, Martin sticks to it and is able to take control of the situation and fit into the groove of Johnny’s show.